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  • 01.28.15

Investing In A More Sustainable Future That Includes A Lot Of Farmed Fish

A $10 million fund called Aqua-Spark is betting on small and medium companies that can make the fish farming business a lot more palatable for the planet.

Seafood–even the stuff labeled as “sustainable”–doesn’t necessarily come from fish swimming wild and free in the oceans. Aquaculture, the practice of farming fish and shellfish, is responsible for almost half of the world’s seafood production. As fish populations drop and the world’s hunger for seafood continues to grow, aquaculture will become even more important.

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There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done right. Increasingly, it is. The horror stories of salmon farms polluting the oceans, generating disease, and brazenly depleting fish stocks are true. But the industry is cleaning up its act.

At Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Martinsville, Virginia, Karl Sharp tosses feed pellets into a tank full of tilapia. The nearly 80,000-square-foot facility, one of the world’s largest indoor fish farms, produces more than four million pounds of fish a year, at a density of two pounds of fish per gallon of water.

Aqua-Spark, an investment fund focused on sustainable aquaculture, sees a huge opportunity in the sector. Launched last year, the $10 million fund invests in small- to medium-sized companies with a dedication to environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Aqua-Spark’s first two investments, announced in January, are Calysta, a biotech company that produces a fishmeal alternative, and Chicoa Fish Farm, a tilapia farm in Mozambique that hopes to become a model sustainable aquaculture operation for others in the region.

Fish meal is often made up of unsustainable foods like small wild-caught fish (their stocks are increasingly strained, and it takes a lot of them to feed farmed fish). Calysta’s solution: a special methane-eating bacteria that generates a protein fish meal alternative that can be supplemented with vitamins and amino acids. The microbial protein feed is already approved for use in the EU.

“Solving the feed issue is a top priority. We would like to see an aquaculture industry that does not rely on wild-caught fishmeal, fish oil, or other unsustainable feed ingredients. We are exploring insects, algae, and single-cell proteins as more sustainable feed options. An investment in the right alternative feed source would mean all of the farming operations in our portfolio would have access to this feed, likely at a discounted cost. Calysta is a key step in this direction,” explain Aqua-Spark founders Mike Velings and Amy Novogratz in an email.

Nature’s own water filters, giant Japanese scallops thrive on fish waste at an experimental farm off Canada’s Vancouver Island. The farm also uses sea cucumbers and kelp to consume excretions from nearby pens of native sablefish.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, just 1% of fish eaten by humans comes from fish farms. But that percentage will inevitably grow, because Africa needs to produce an extra 1.6 million tons of fish this year just to allow for current consumption habits. That means there’s a huge opportunity for Chicoa to influence the industry.

“Aqua-Spark wants to invest in a number of farms on the continent to help the industry develop the right way, quickly, and Chicoa is the place to start. Located in Mozambique where there is government support, a growing economy and the right environmental conditions, they are strategically positioned. Further, Chicoa is building a hatchery and feed mill to enable the growth of a local industry,” write Velings and Novogratz, who have invested $4 million total in Aqua-Spark’s first portfolio companies.

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Aqua-Spark ultimately hopes to support a network of farms that have all the elements necessary to create a sustainable operation. That mans future investments will focus on areas like market access, disease treatment, and of course, new technology. By July, the fund plans to have six investments in total.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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